Walking along the tree-rimmed tributaries off the Cheakamus River in rural Squamish, it's possible to see flashes of dark ruby red and grey among the smooth dun rocks of the river bottom. Healthy Coho salmon, ripe with eggs and milt, have returned a month earlier than usual to spawn in record numbers.
The count is approximately 10 times higher than in previous years and their presence is being greeted with rapture from the local bald eagle population, whose individual members hover in solitary dedication among the evergreen boughs above the riverbanks. It's likely that the appearance of the Coho, which prefer smaller, quieter tributaries to the main river, will move eagle populations into the forests just offshore the main banks of the Cheakamus.
"Salmon are a critical component to this environment, to this ecosystem, we see a lot of activity around it scavenging the bodies," said North Vancouver Outdoor School (NVOS) principal Victor Elderton. "Nature works in strange and mysterious ways so we had expected a really healthy Chum run and it was less than expected and this week has been a phenomenal week with the Coho, it's been a real shock. As to what happened and why? I have no idea."
Surprise is a relative term for staff at the NVOS in Squamish's Paradise Valley. They're mostly concerned with ensuring the 5,000 students that use their programs are cured of their nature deficit disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods . The school runs a hands-on mini-hatchery to improve fish stocks and educate primary grades from all over the Lower Mainland about the importance of species preservation and proliferation. At this time of year a special trap on the river usually corals only a handful of Coho but the results were different come early December.
"Yesterday we had 65 salmon come into the trap," continued Elderton. "In a normal year we would usually raise around 30,000 Coho salmon. This year we've already collected over 60,000. We normally would have only a very few at this point in the fish hatchery, we wouldn't usually start to see Coho until the beginning of January. Everything seems to be shifted a little bit anyways, we don't know whether the fish are coming earlier this year or if they're going to continue to come over the same time period as they have in previous years."
NVOS is in the middle of the Dave Marshall Salmon Reserve, which contains over 14 kilometres of winding, re-enhanced salmon spawning river channels that flow off the Cheakamus. The school is situated on 400 acres of wilderness and beyond the hatchery and river focus, also offers agricultural systems and First Nations education programs. BC Hydro provides much of the funding for river maintenance, fish populations data, and a good part of NVOS's hatchery infrastructure.